All summer long, I’ve been watching the Sharpe TV movies that aired on BBC America. For years, I’ve been hearing from people in the science fiction tribe about how good these books and movies are. Other than one or two that were lost in a DVR flakeout, I saw every one of the films. I’ve never read any of the books. I went in with a certain set of expectations, which were kind of high and after having watched all the surving recordings my final conclusion is … ehhh. I didn’t hate them (as I did with the new Battlestar Galactica or new Doctor Who) but I definitely didn’t love them. The first two movies I liked more than the rest. It didn’t take very long to get highly formulaic. There will be nobleman officers, they will talk smack to Sharpe and in the end they will either be dead or grudgingly admit he’s a good officer. As fun as that is, the impact wears away the dozenth time.
I do kind of understand what the science fiction fans see in it. At its core, the Sharpe series is the original Star Trek. Sharpe is Kirk, and the various places they go around Spain and France and Portugal, every town is a planet. They beam in, Sharpe finds a pretty girl and gets laid, they solve the problem/win the battle and move on. Just like Star Trek, when a crewman you don’t recognize goes in, don’t get attached to them. When I saw the episode that had in the “Chosen Men” a new guy named Shillycorn, I knew what his fate held. Sure enough, 10 minutes later he had been hanged.
I cared just enough to keep watching. If I had disliked one or two of the episodes in the middle just a little more, I might have bailed. It was that close. I did like it when it got kind of swashbuckly. Some of the elements were enjoyable, such as the battle that turned on whether the soldiers could fire two rounds or three per minute. If two they would all be killed, if three they would win the battle. That kind of stuff I liked, but the farther in we got, the less there was and the more tedious each episode became. Perhaps some of the best bits of the latter episodes involved Sharpe at his worst as a person. There is a bit where Sharpe commits a personal betrayal of a huge magnitude against someone who has worked hard to save his life. The actor playing the betrayed friend sells the entire movie with one quarter-second change of expression. If there were more bits like that, I’d have liked it better. Let’s not even get into the last film, Sharpe’s Challenge which probably should have been left unmade. Sean Bean and Daragh O’Malley were just too old for that to be reasonable, the story sucked and the whole thing seemed lackluster. For a month BBC America billed it as a “triumphant return” but the thing itself was barely watchable and a poor finale to the series.
The best aspect of the whole series is a metaphorical one about the nature of leadership. At its heart, the message is that the difference between a good leader and a bad one is whether he (or she) will stand with you and not run when the bullets start flying. When a good leader stands firm, so will you. A lot of times, it is really that simple.
Overall, I’d give this series the most neutral recommendation possible. I don’t advise you watch it, I don’t advise you skip it. The TV show was such that I can’t imagine ever reading one of the books, even if I hear they are far superior. I don’t feel like my time was wasted, but I don’t feel gratified either. I give it a thumb completely sideways.